Gagan Sharma weighs in on the quality of Indian sparkling wines and applauds the winemakers for how far Indian wines have come…
An important and growing segment of wines in India is sparkling wines. They shouldn’t be restricted to the definition of being wines that bubble when poured into a glass; they offer shades of mysticism, charm, and glamour every time the cork goes “pop”. India has been investing its knowledge and techniques in producing some really impressive bubblies and the Sommelier India Tasting Panel dedicated an evening to blind-tasting this brigade and selecting the best.
Much like many other alcoholic beverages, sparkling wines were discovered thanks to multiple accidents. There is evidence to show that the first incidence of finding bubbles in a bottle was in the early years of the 16th century in the Rhône Valley, France. It was without a doubt a fortuitous mistake.
The wines were bottled while containing some residual yeast and unfermented sugar, both of which came together to result in continued fermentation, which created a fizz. This happened because, fortunately for posterity, the monks who produced these wines didn’t know how to completely clear the yeast. As a result the wines hadn’t completed fermentation which had been merely halted as the winter temperatures dropped below the optimal conditions for it to continue. At the end of the cold season, the yeast was reactivated and partial fermentation was resumed, causing the bubbles. This method of making bubbles, produced by spontaneous fermentation, came to be called the Ancestral Method.
Sourcing their inspiration from this, winemakers of the Saumur area in the Loire Valley, France, created what is now called the Traditional Method in which the creation of bubbles was deliberate and controlled. Here, bottles are filled with portions of the base wine, sugar and yeast, and allowed to ferment within the bottle. The fermentation is undertaken using special yeast that works in the absence of oxygen. As a result, carbon dioxide is released into the bottle and held under pressure, finally dissolving into the liquid and creating bubbles.
This Traditional Method is followed in the making of Champagne and Cavas and is now one of the foremost styles in use. Wines like Prosecco and Asti are based on a different process called the Tank Method where the breakdown of yeast is eliminated and varietal flavours accentuated.
India has followed the Saumur and Champagne route. As in Saumur, we base our sparkling wines on Chenin Blanc, which flourishes in India rather than on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which are the base wines for Champagnes, but have not yet proved their strength in the country. However, experiments are underway and some portions of these two grapes are being used by winemakers in the country, although not in dominating percentages.
Chenin Blanc is a wonderful varietal for bubblies. The sharp, crisp acidity with a neutral flavour profile provides a perfect foundation for the wine to build upon. It is not the varietal character, but the action of the yeast and its disintegration, that adds the real character to the wine. During the secondary fermentation, the yeast feeds on sugar to create bubbles and alcohol. Upon processing all the sugar, it starts to break down slowly, a process called yeast autolysis. This can take from months to a couple of years, the slower the better. Complex flavours and aromas of brioche, nuttiness, mushrooms, savoury pastry, and mustiness are released into the liquid, contributing to the wine’s profile.
While some winemakers like to restrict this profile, others maintain a long duration of autolysis, leaving the yeast in the wine for maximum absorption and integration of these flavours. Fratelli Vineyards’ sparkling wine is one of the least autolytic and yeasty examples of Indian sparkling wines – a condition their winemaker plans to change in the future. Having said that, it has the sharpest acidity of them all. Grover Zampa Vineyards’ bubblies have always been known for a heavy accent of yeast. They are also amongst the choicest food-worthy and full-bodied ones. Chandon comes somewhere in the middle between these extremes, and is a prime choice for easy sipping. Then there are winemakers who have also shown a promising style with Chenin Blanc which delivers an underlying fruitiness, making the wine much more appealing to the Indian palate. York Vineyards leads in this style with its delicate balance between yeasty characters and Chenin Blanc’s subtle fruitiness plus a gentle roundness of the mousse on the palate (the term used to describe the sensation caused by the froth or bubbles upon sipping). Sula Vineyards produce the maximum sparkling wines in India and their style has always been more fruit forward. They are also the only producers of semi-sweet and sweet consumer friendly offerings that are good for making spritzers and bubbly cocktails.
With such a wide range of styles, one thing is for sure – Indian sparkling wines have something for every palate. And Indian winemakers have achieved this variety by basing our bubblies primarily on Chenin Blanc, which is not the varietal of choice around the globe, which makes this achievement even more special. And it’s not just that; our bubblies have proved their calibre, earning international accolades and awards at key wine competitions and, most importantly, the respect of international wine communities. The Sommelier India Tasting Panel applauds our Indian winemakers and their teams and raises a toast of bubblies to their undying spirit that puts such beautiful wines on our tables despite all the odds against them.
Indian Sparkling Wines tasted by the SITP – Tasting Notes by Gagan Sharma – in no particular order
Fratelli Gran Cuvée Brut
Bright, deep golden colour with fast-fading bubbles. Strong nose with zesty and under ripe aromas, hints of autolytic character, and verjus (the pressed juice of unripe grapes). Hints of stony minerality and chalk. Bone dry on the palate. High, crisp, tingling and mouth-watering acidity. Crunchy palate with notes of green apples, lime zest, pear skin, chalky minerality, and white florals. Astute structure and a light body. Refreshing and approachable. 12.5% alc. Price Rs 1,120
York Sparkling Cuvée Brut
Blanc de Blanc
Youthful, bright, light golden, high intensity with fast-paced, mid-sized bubbles. Fruity and floral notes albeit not dominant. Subtle, lemon candy sweetness, tropical fruits, medium intensity of autolytic characters, and a hint of earthiness. Round palate, creamy mousse, appreciable balance, and clear autolytic notes with tones of biscuits, yeast and savoury touches with a tad medicinal and marzipan end. Round acidity and a clean back-palate. Gentle and delectable. 12% alc. Price Rs 975
Grover Zampa Soirée Brut 2011
Faded ochre colour with a green tinge. Small, slow-paced, subtle bubbles. Outright autolytic with heavy intensity – musty, toasty, biscuity, savoury, bakery touches. Slightly dusty and gamey, too. Intense, palate-busting with autolytic notes and alluring complexity. Well-integrated meaty, nutty tones with a sour cream touch and a round mouthfeel, all bound together with crisp acidity and clean finish. Masculine and inspiring. 12.5% alc. Price Rs 1,100
Bright yellow colour with mid-speed, mid-sized bubbles. Burst of citrus notes with fresh lemon zest, opening up to ripe white and yellow fruits at its core, with hints of mustiness and yeastiness. Clean and fresh front palate with burst of fruitiness, slowly making way for mild autolytic character, ending on a caramelised finish. Though the acidity is crisp, residual sugar is a tad high making it seem cloying. Also, an underlying bitterness, indicating excess crushing. Approachable and amicable. 12.5% alc. Price Rs 1,250
Chandon Brut Rosé
Deep salmon pink, with mid-sized and high-speed bubbles. Medium intensity of muddy, meaty, and musty autolytic tones, with crushed spices, pink peppercorns, beetroot and crushed roses. Clean and pronounced autolytic character, spice and bitter cherries. Earthy and musty finish, with a clean and round mouthfeel. Easy and balanced. 12.5% alc. Price Rs 1,450
Grover Zampa Soirée Brut Rosé
Faded onion-skin hue with slightly flat and small bubbles. Takes time to open but opens beautifully. Savoury tones with complex and well-integrated autolytic notes, with playfulness of ripe, candied red fruits, strawberries, sweet cherries, and a touch of spiciness. Clean, balanced, and well-structured palate. Burst of autolytic and savoury character accentuated by creamy and musty mousse from the bubbles. Gentle lift of spice and crushed floral touch at the back, and a tail of crisp minerality with a clean finish. Impressive and alluring.
12.5% alc. Price Rs 1,200
Sula Brut Rosé
Dull, deep onion-skin colour, fast paced, fairly mid-sized. Burst of fruit and florals with hint of musty autolytic characters and savoury baked touches. A tad unclean, and interrupted end. Mouthful of flavours with spices, candied fruits, and crushed florals. However, the acidity is a bit feeble and lets the off-dry sugar content overpower. Steely mid-palate makes it a little jarring and seem rectified. Acidity lacks a punch. Friendly but
off-balance. 12.5% alc. Price Rs 1,200
Sula Seco Rosé
Bright, medium-salmon colour with short-lived bubbles. Floral and candied front, with overpowering raspberry sugar candy and crushed dark cherries, marring the faint autolytic character. Tired palate with sugar overpowering the dull acidity, although maintaining the fruity front with subtle hints of crushed florals and medicinal back. Nothing very exciting but try-worthy. 11.5% alc. Price Rs 700
Pale white colour, with mid-sized bubbles. Overly sweet and off-balance. Medicinal and eucalyptus notes. Steely and cloying finish. Needs something to wash it off with crisper acidity. 11.5% alc.
Price Rs 550
Sula Brut Tropicale
Fairly white hue with an interesting hint of onion-skin colour. A good blend of candied fruits, under ripeness, dusty minerality and and refreshing citrus. Clean and balanced palate with fruit-forwardness, lemon zest touches, hints of autolytic characters, and tones of crushed florals, spices, and earthiness.Drinkable and refreshing. 12% alc. Price Rs 1,050
All wines were served at tasting temperature. Chandon wines were included in the tasting by the SI tasting panel